(originally posted on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant)
Organizing on social media for causes in Africa was popularized through the KONY 2012 campaign (see CIHA Blog articles on this subject here and here) and saw another big spike in 2014 with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag after the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram (read related CIHA Blog post here).
A new article from Paul Currion in IRIN News, “The Invisible Lesson of Invisible Children,” details the inability for social media campaigns to effect real change. And an article from November 2014 by Lauren Wolfe for Foreign Policy, “#BringBackOurJournalists,” decries the journalism profession’s shallow acceptance of the social media phenomenon of hashtag activism without delving into the causes or solutions of the problem.
These two articles brought to mind questions on whether hashtag activism is organized more around events in Africa than in other regions of the world. Because many Westerners have little knowledge of the continent, does simplistic organizing about Africa catch on more readily because it proposes a solution from a wealthier, more digitally connected audience?
In her article Wolfe quotes a tweet from Teju Cole (who also coined “the White Savior Industrial Complex”) from May 2014, just after the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag exploded outside of West Africa: “For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.”
Both Currion and Wolfe note that because of journalists’ presence on social media, cause organizing that effectively uses social media can easily attract wider attention, which can lead to international attention and money and even governmental policy thrown at it. Currion writes that instead of connecting those affected by disasters and those who can help, humanitarian organizations mediate between the two, “and so contribute to keeping them separate,” thus echoing the knowledge gap that exists by any Westerners of Africa.
Policy leaders are acclaiming the powers of social media as well. The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African who has a PhD in mobile technology, said in a welcome speech just after her appointment in 2013 that social media would help to solve gender equality. She has repeated this claim publicly, especially in UN Women’s new HeForShe campaign, that social media and better data are crucial to improving women’s economic and social situation relative to men.
It is true that in many places in sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phone penetration rates near that of the United States and Europe, and young people especially are on social media to connect with friends and family and to learn about the rest of the world. And improved data collection and analysis about technology access as well as its use and capacity to disseminate information on political and social events is necessary.
But for Mlambo-Ngcuka to put the hopes of advances in gender equality on the powers of technology and social media in particular seems to, once again, place the responsibility for social change—as in the cases of Kony 2012 and #BringBackOurGirls—in the hands of well-meaning individuals rather than the governments or other political actors who can exert the power and resources for effective, lasting change.
In the case of the schoolgirls’ kidnapping, the Nigerian government has long had difficulties (both practical and motivational) battling Boko Haram. The hunt for Joseph Kony was thwarted by domestic and international politics as well as geography. The fight against gender inequality has stymied political leaders and activists for generations. In all of these cases, as with any complicated social and political problem, a complex solution is necessary.
As Currion writes, “This isn’t an argument against using social media.” The technology can be used for news, for entertainment, for organizing, for all kinds of social relations. Using social media and technology can be one aspect of a multi-level solution. The problem arises when it becomes a cure-all for the ills of the world, particularly when African problems are thought to be so simplistic and the solutions so evident as to be resolved just by activists banding together.
These claims—made by humanitarian organizations small and large, by journalists, and by policy-makers—that just connecting the world through technology can change political events and transform social relations rather than simply become a tool through which existing political events and social relations continue as before ultimately individualize social and political problems and let governments and other political actors off the hook.
Instead of—or in addition to—social media and mobile technology, policy change and structural change are both needed, in Western as well as African contexts, where histories of colonization, corruption, neoliberalism, conflict, and modernization all intersect to make elusive the solutions to problems like terrorism, child soldiers, and gender inequality. Online organizing is not a silver-bullet solution. It can be, rather, a space to press for the political and social change necessary to bring about the complex solutions outside as well as within Africa.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.